Why Are You Still Typing On Your Phone – Or Any Other Device?

From my Forbes post:

Only a few years ago, you thought that guy walking down the street apparently talking to himself was off his meds. Now, you’re rocking your Bluetooth headset every day without even thinking about it (even if you still annoy some of us on the train).

But that’s talking with other people, for pete’s sake–are you still phoning with your phone in 2015? Today, you can ask it to do almost anything just by speaking “OK Google” or “Hey Siri”: conduct a search, make a restaurant reservation, send a text, or do almost anything you used to have to type into a search box or tap into an app.

You probably already knew you could try doing all that, but here’s what you may not know: Most of it doesn’t suck anymore. If you haven’t tried Google Voice Search, Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, or even Amazon.com’s Echo “smart” speaker recently, you may be surprised how much better they’re working than even six months ago. Not only do they seem to understand words better, even in noisy situations, they also appear to produce more accurate results in many cases.

All that’s thanks to big improvements in machine learning, in particular a branch of artificial intelligence called deep learning, that’s been applied to speech recognition in the last couple of years. “Recent AI breakthroughs have cracked the code on voice, which is approaching 90% as good as human accuracy,” says Tim Tuttle, CEO of Expect Labs, which began offering its MindMeld cloud-based service last year to help any device or app create voice interfaces.

It’s great for us smartphone owners, but the stakes couldn’t be higher for companies. …

Read the full story.

Here Comes Wall-E For The Warehouse: A Conversation With Fetch Robotics CEO Melonee Wise

Fetch Robotics CEO Melonee Wise

Fetch Robotics CEO Melonee Wise

From my Forbes blog:

The little robot follows Melonee Wise around a makeshift warehouse as she picks up boxes of cereal and packages of soap and drops them into a crate atop the machine. Freight, as Wise’s startup Fetch Robotics calls it, may be a machine, but its careful tracking of her movements recalls nothing so much as a dutiful dog.

The robot, which Wise demonstrated in a mock warehouse in a corner of the company’s San Jose headquarters, is one of two wheeled models introduced by Fetch in April as a way to automate warehouses and manufacturing buildings. While Freight is intended as an aid to human workers, the namesake Fetch has a single arm that can pick items off a shelf and drop them onto Freight, potentially replacing people.

Wise’s company is one of several robotics companies betting that robots, which have slowly found homes in auto plants and retail warehouses, are finally ready to roll out in much larger numbers. The CEO says in an interview I conducted for a recent profile of the young roboticist and entrepreneur that smaller and faster computers, improvements in artificial intelligence, and cheaper sensors are all combining to make robots cheaper (in Fetch’s case, tens of thousands of dollars) and more capable.

Fetch is one of the most closely watched robotics startups thanks largely to Wise, a key contributor at the seminal robotics incubator Willow Garage, where she helped design and build several models, and a team of robotics veterans she has assembled. Fetch, which in June raised a $20 million round of funding from Softbank and previous investors Shasta Ventures and O’Reilly AlphaTech Ventures, has sold a few robots to pilot commercial customers. But Wise has bigger ambitions to create a platform on which software developers can create new applications. “They have a chance to create the backbone of autonomous robots,” says Shasta Ventures Managing Director Rob Coneybeer.

The blunt-speaking Wise, whose voice suggests a mellower version of the comedian Paula Poundstone, talked about how she got into robotics, what she hopes to accomplish at Fetch, how she aims to compete against Google and other companies snapping up robotics companies and talent, and the challenges of fulfilling her dream of a robot in every home. Following is an edited version of our conversation:

Q: How did you decide to focus on that particular area, given that you’ve been trying all along to build for pretty broad application, even in the home?

A: At Willow, we spent two years trying to figure out what the next thing in robotics would be. The first year we tried to understand if there was any play in the home. The answer was a resounding no.

Q: Why?

A: The expectations are too high and the price tolerance is way too low. So people would love to have a robot that would do their dishes or tidy their house, but they want all of that for $500 or less. Even when you challenge that notion by saying, well, you know the Roomba you bought last month was $850, they’re like, oh no, I bought that on sale.

There was this big hype about at-home telepresence. Everyone wants to put telepresence inside someone else’s home, like their mother’s, but no one actually wants it in their home. They don’t like the privacy challenges.

Q: What’s attractive about logistics and manufacturing?

A: We strongly felt that logistics and materials handling and manufacturing was very scalable. There’s a strong need for it. One of the things that sold me on it is there’s a 600,000-person job gap right now for logistics and manufacturing. They just don’t have enough people right now. Turnover is really bad. They also want to increase performance, and people have a rate limit. They get injured. There’s shrinkage. When you pile all these things up, there’s a great case for robots. …

Read the complete interview.

In Conversation: Stripe CEO Patrick Collison On The Limitless Potential Of Payments

Headshot - Patrick Collison

Stripe CEO and cofounder Patrick Collison

From my Forbes blog:

When Patrick Collison and his younger brother John were developing ideas in 2010 for new apps to create, they kept running into a seemingly basic problem: Even as it was getting easier to tap cloud services to create startups faster and cheaper than ever, one thing was still a pain in the app: accepting payments online from customers.

So the pair, already entrepreneurs from Ireland who sold their first company in their teens for $5 million, decided to turn that problem into a business. They set up a system that allowed developers to add a few lines of code to their app and start taking payments from anyone anywhere, for a small fee per transaction.

Today, their company, Stripe, processes billions of dollars a year for tens of thousands of companies, from other startups to the likes of Facebook, Salesforce, and Lyft. With a recent funding from Visa and other partners such as Apple and China’s Alibaba, Stripe is now valued at $5 billion. But CEO Patrick Collison and the company’s investors alike think that’s only the start. Hemant Taneja of investor General Catalyst says that when Stripe reached its first $1 million in transactions processed, the elder Collison said, “Only five orders of magnitude left.”

Taneja thinks Stripe indeed could be valued at $100 billion in the next few years if it plays its cards right. Just as Google turned search into an advertising empire and Amazon’s Web Services enabled the creation of many thousands of online businesses, he says, “There’s an opportunity for someone to create a platform that’s all about payments and commerce.”

It’s a heady possibility for someone who still hasn’t turned 27 years old, and who faces competitors from PayPal and Google to big banks. In an interview I conducted with Patrick Collison for a story in MIT Technology Review’s annual list of Innovators Under 35, the Stripe CEO had a sore throat, so he spoke softly, in a distinct if muted accent befitting his upbringing in Ireland’s Shannon region.

But his ambition–and a firm belief that Stripe and the sometimes controversial startups it enables are good for society–were apparent as we talked on a balmy late June afternoon at Stripe headquarters, a 106-year-old trunk factory in San Francisco’s Mission District. Following is an edited version of our conversation:

Q: What spurred your interest in technology early on?
A: I grew up in very rural Ireland. The Internet was kind of a connection to the greater world. It had a lot of significance. Maybe if I grew up in New York, I’d have already felt it. It was very clear if you grew up in the middle of Ireland just how potent a force the Internet was and could be. I was always seduced by the potency of computers and the possibilities for which they could be leveraged.

Q: When did you and John realize you needed what Stripe now provides, and when did you realize it could be a business?
A: We started working on it as a side project, while I was at MIT, and just being baffled at how convoluted and awkward this appeared to be. It seemed like a prevailing ecosystem designed to reduce the number of Internet businesses. …

Read the rest of the interview.

Innovator Melonee Wise Builds Robots For The Warehouse And Beyond

Fetch Robotics CEO Melonee Wise

Fetch Robotics CEO Melonee Wise with namesake robot

From my MIT Technology Review story:

Melonee Wise imagines that all homes will have autonomous robots—something like The Jetsons’ Rosie the robot maid, minus the apron and Brooklyn accent. Just one problem: Wise, chief executive of the year-old startup Fetch Robotics, thinks it won’t happen in her lifetime, because the challenges in hardware and software are too big. “I’m probably one of the most pessimistic roboticists you’ll ever meet,” she admits.

Nonetheless, Wise still thinks smaller and more powerful computers, affordable sensors, more adept machine vision, and better artificial intelligence are coming together to make robots capable of a wide range of tasks—if not yet all in a single machine. That’s why Fetch Robotics is going after one promising area: warehouses and e-commerce fulfillment centers, which are plagued with high turnover, injuries, employee theft, and a chronic shortage of workers, who, of course, also have a biological need to sleep.

Although dedicated robots are common in giant distribution centers, Wise thinks there’s a bigger market for more flexible “mobile manipulation” robots that can help smaller companies ease into automation. …

Read the complete profile.

Innovator Patrick Collison Aims To Make Money Flow Easily Online


My story in MIT Technology Review:

“I grew up in very rural Ireland. The Internet was a connection to the greater world. It was very clear just how potent a force the Internet was and could be. While my brother John and I were tinkering with some new apps in Ireland and then in Boston and Silicon Valley, we experienced firsthand the difficulty of accepting online payments. We were just baffled at how convoluted and awkward the process appeared to be. The ecosystem seemed designed to reduce the number of Internet businesses.

“The same way Google exists as a foundational component of the Internet around information retrieval, it felt like there should be a developer-focused, instant-setup payment platform. Many people in financial services told us it couldn’t work.

“Stripe now processes billions of dollars a year for thousands of businesses, from startups to publicly traded companies. There’s a ton of database and distributed-system work that has to be done to make that experience possible. We have a 10-person machine-learning team that works on compliance, risk, fraud, identity verification, all of those things behind the scenes.

“Making it so easy to participate in the online economy has a far larger effect than one might imagine. We’re enabling new business models, like crowdfunding. And mobile marketplaces, like Lyft, Postmates, and Instacart. That enables more people in society to take advantage of these services. My youngest brother is disabled, and for him it’s not just a convenience. He can now do grocery shopping in a way that he could not before.”

—as told to Robert D. Hof

A Deeper Look At The New Google

From MIT Technology Review:

Before Apple’s Steve Jobs died in 2011, he told Google cofounder and CEO Larry Page that his company was trying to do too much. As Page later told the Financial Times, he replied, “If we just do the same things we did before and don’t do something new, it seems like a crime to me.” Yet Page also acknowledged that Jobs was right in one sense: he could manage only so many things before too many would get lost in the shuffle.

Those twin desires—to do new things regardless of how weird and unrelated they seem to Google’s core search and advertising business, and yet still find a way to manage them to fruition—explain Page’s surprise announcement Monday that he was creating a holding company called Alphabet. It will separate Google’s lucrative ad-related businesses, including Android mobile software and the video site YouTube, from the company’s wide-ranging efforts on self-driving cars, human longevity, Internet access balloons, the Nest connected-home devices, and more, each of which will probably become discrete subsidiaries.

But the move, while cheered by investors, is just the first step to fulfilling the company’s long-standing goal to “make Google a long term success and the world a better place.” In the view of several management experts, Alphabet will be successful only if the individual projects and companies can be successful enough on their own to be spun off into freestanding companies eventually. The new corporate structure enables that to happen, but it surely doesn’t guarantee it.

First, it’s important to dispel the assumption that Page and cofounder Sergey Brin have created something like the Berkshire Hathaway of the Internet, an updated version of Warren Buffett’s conglomerate. “The comparison is silly,” says Michael A. Cusumano, a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. Buffett, he says, invests in existing, undervalued companies, a bit like a mutual fund—precisely the opposite of Alphabet’s VC-style focus on risky new ventures like Calico, which wants to somehow fight aging. ….

Read the complete analysis.

Spelling It Out: The Real Reasons Google Will Become Alphabet


From my Forbes blog:

Google CEO Larry Page never fails to surprise. Google just renamed itself Alphabet, creating a holding company that includes the search company (Google) and a bunch of others that no one could figure out why it was doing. Page will be CEO of Alphabet, Google cofounder and executive-in-charge-of-cool-stuff Sergey Brin will be president, and senior VP Sundar Pichai becomes CEO of Google.

It sounds like a big deal, and in a sense it is always a big deal when a company changes its name and corporate structure. But in other ways, not much has changed, because Google has essentially run its far-flung collection of businesses, from its Calico human longevity company to its X lab that’s working on Internet balloons, self-driving cars, and drone product delivery to investment arms Google Ventures and Google Capital, pretty independently already.

Either way, the move raises a few questions:

* What’s the big idea?

Well, it’s probably not just one idea, but let’s start with one: This will keep left-brain investors happy, or at least happier. They’ve always been wary of all the non-search, non-advertising businesses Google has entered, and their inevitably uncertain prospects have no doubt weighed on the shares if only because they’re much more of a cost for years to come rather than significant revenue generators.

So this is a way for the company, which will now report the core Google business results separately in earnings reports, to make the company’s various businesses clearer to investors. It worked, at least for now: Google’s shares rose more than 6% in extended trading after a nearly flat day today. As Pivotal Research Group analyst Brian Wieser put it in a note to clients, “Perhaps there will be incremental value assigned to the totality of the new Alphabet because, undoubtedly, real value exists within the company’s emerging ventures.”

But given that Google rarely seems to make big decisions to please investors, it’s probably best to take Page at his word that the main impetus was to make each business able to operate more independently–and thus more likely to succeed or at least to get the chance to succeed without needing to be related to the core ad business. …

* What’s with the name?

With a funny name like Google, you certainly have to come up with something for the holding company that’s at least a bit whimsical (the URL is abc.xyz) or you will look lame. So that’s one. Another interpretation from an esteemed analyst (my wife): “Are they going to control everything from A to Z?” I wouldn’t bet against their trying.

But as Page puts it in his blog post, the name also fits:

We liked the name Alphabet because it means a collection of letters that represent language, one of humanity’s most important innovations, and is the core of how we index with Google search! We also like that it means alpha-bet (Alpha is investment return above benchmark), which we strive for!

Yeah, he’s still a nerd at heart. (And can you tell he’s stoked?!) …

Read the complete post.